Friday, November 28, 2008

Ensemble brings magic to musical ‘Stardust’

Stardust for Christmas

Published in The News Tribune, Nov. 28, 2008
Pictured: Adrian David Robinson and Louise Stinson
photos by Tor Clausen

For 14 years during the holiday season, Harlequin Productions has visited the Stardust Club for a bit of nostalgia and swinging 1940s-style musical entertainment, except last year when the Stardust singers and dancers flew to Africa to entertain the troops. These World War II songfests have been a holiday tradition almost as long as Harlequin has been in existence – 18 years.

The current outing, “Stardust for Christmas,” is the fifth in the series that I’ve reviewed, and I think it is the best of the five.

It has a better balance of story and song and an overall better cast. (Earlier installments may have had a few more outstanding soloists, but this cast works better as an ensemble.)

All of the Stardust shows are credited to the mysterious writer Harlowe Reed, whose biography is a well-kept secret. Whoever he is, he spins lightweight yarns that are highly entertaining but not in the least bit believable.

In this episode, nightclub singer Loretta Mae (LaVon Hardison) thinks she has just bought the Stardust Club but soon finds out that what she purchased with her life’s savings was a worthless piece of paper, and the real owner of the club is now a gangster named Salvatore Mantolini, aka Uncle Sal (Russ Holm). It’s Christmas Eve 1941, and Sal and his hired thugs are trying to wrest the club away from Loretta Mae and her fellow entertainers while they rehearse for their Christmas show.

Hardison and Holm are both veterans of previous plays in the Stardust series. Hardison is a jazz singer who has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald. She has great range and easily goes from softly swinging jazz such as in “Blue Skies” with guitar accompaniment by Vince Brown to the rocking gospel-soul “Baby King,” a big production number with full company and six-man band. Not just a singer, Hardison has proven acting ability, as seen in the sweet drama “Intimate Apparel” last year. In this play her comic skills shine, most notably while dancing with Uncle Sal and fending off his clumsy romantic advances.

By the way, if audience members think there’s something familiar about Hardison and her guitar accompanist (Brown), it’s because they play area venues as a duet under the name Red and Ruby.

Holm does not come across as a song-and-dance man, but he manages to hold his own, and whatever he might lack in musical aptitude, he more than makes up for with great comic acting. He plays the old gangster as a parody of Mafioso types with shoulder shrugs and facial twitches evoking Rodney Dangerfield. Even in the big song-and-dance numbers with much better dancers to watch, it was hard for me not to keep my eyes on Uncle Sal.

Every other actor shines as well, with each bringing unique talents to the stage.

Megan H. Carver looks a bit like Bette Midler, sings with beautiful bell tones, dances with wild abandon, and has a dazzling smile. She is also the choreographer for this show, and the choreography is outstanding.

In the rousing production that closes Act 1, her choreography is dazzling as the whole company breaks out in a brawl while jitterbugging. Wow! You have to see this one.

Adrian David Robinson as the reluctant hoodlum, Alonzo, is over-the-top funny and lovable, and he’s the best of many great dancers in this production.

Courtney Freed is a soulful and sultry singer. I loved her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”

Jessica Blinn remains mostly in the background until she picks up her violin and wows the audience with jazz licks on a duet with saxophonist Dan Blunck.

Sammuel Hawkins as the crooner Jimmy Ladino and Kevin McManus as Salvatore’s arrogant and ambitious nephew both sing and dance with high energy, and Louise Stinson with her blonde wig and big batting eyes plays a great gang moll.

It’s great lighthearted entertainment, and the music rocks.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 31
WHERE: State Theater, 202 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia
TICKETS: $34-$38; rush tickets, $12-$20 half-hour before curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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